GARDEN CITY, Kan. (AP) - What started as a senior project has become an invaluable event for wounded soldiers and their families.
Over a recent weekend, 15 wounded soldiers from Fort Riley, Fort Sill and Fort Carson and members of the Wounded Warrior project participated in the fourth annual Heartland Heroes Hunt in and around Garden City, while their wives were pampered at Generations Salon and their children were entertained with crafts, a trip to the zoo and cookie decorating.
In 2008, Mackenzie Nix needed an idea for her senior project at Garden City High School, and thanks to her stepfather Tim Telinde's suggestion, the first Heartland Heroes Hunt took place in December of that year.
"He wanted to bring some guys to hunt, and we decided to bring the families, too. He kind of persuaded me to do it. It's a lot of work, but a lot of fun, too," Nix said.
Telinde said that at that time, he had no idea what wide-ranging effects it would have.
"We didn't realize what we had until after we did the first one. That's why we decided we needed to continue to do it. The effects on them and on us - we realize that it's a rare opportunity that we can give these guys and their families three days out of their lives to come relax and just be regular people," he said.
The father/daughter team was joined by Brian Beavers to help host and organize the event, and since the first one, they have had many soldiers come back to help.
Retired Sgt. Dave Sterling is one such soldier. He lost his right hand in 2004 when the Bradley fighting vehicle he was in was hit by a rocket propelled grenade.
"I'm right-handed, so a big challenge to me was learning to do everything left-handed," Sterling said.
He was one of the soldiers who experienced the first hunt, and because of what he got out of it, he wanted to make sure that it continued every year.
"Pheasant hunting is great, but I'd rather help set up for these guys because I know what the impact is for guys who are freshly wounded and haven't gotten to experience something like this, and how much it changes them and brightens their day," he said.
Telinde said that many of the soldiers who have participated in past years go out and raise money to ensure that it will continue. Organizers limit it to 15 soldiers because they want to make it as much of a one-on-one experience as possible.
"We limit it to 15 people. Tim and Brian are kind of the faces of Heartland Heroes. Especially Tim, since he is the big hunter, so he likes to be able to experience as much time as he can with each soldier," Sterling said.
On Friday, Telinde, Beavers and the soldiers went pheasant hunting, while the wives and children of the soldiers spent time doing arts and crafts. On Saturday, the wives were treated to some pampering at Generations Salon, where they received manicures, pedicures and massages.
"It also gives the wives and kids the opportunity to get away from the military post and relax and have fun," Telinde said. "Some ladies from Home Depot took the kids to the zoo on Saturday and helped them decorate the cookies."
Nix, who took time off from her college courses to help this year, along with some of her Delta Zeta sorority sisters, made the cookies.
The fact that the soldiers can bring their families along is part of what makes the event even more special. At the lunch, which was served at Pierceville Federated Church on Saturday, Travis Reichert, staff sergeant out of Fort Carson, Colo., who sustained several injuries during combat, said that the weekend was a chance for him and his wife, Elsie, to celebrate.
"My birthday was on Thursday, and my wife's is today, so she gets pampered and I get to go hunting," he said.
Reichert, already a hunter, said that his wife probably would have preferred to go hunting.
The most common response by the soldiers, in terms of the benefits they experience during the weekend, is the chance to feel normal.
"I think it's a way for guys with any injury, whether it is post-traumatic stress disorder, or like me being an amputee - nobody here treats any of us like we actually have any disabilities," Sterling said. "God definitely works through mysterious ways, and one of His ways that's not too mysterious is the Heartland Heroes."